“Stingray Sam” (2009)
by A.J. Hakari
The American Astronaut is one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. Part alt-rock concert, part German expressionism, and part Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, it’s an experience that — love it or loathe it — is totally one of a kind. I’d wondered what writer/director/star Cory McAbee would brew up next, when, lo and behold, Stingray Sam was sprung upon me. Luckily, this is more of a companion piece to The American Astronaut than something working overtime to top its weirdness. It’s also a good deal on the lighter side, so if McAbee’s last intergalactic excursion struck you as skeezy, trust that Stingray Sam is a more innocent but inherently bizarre blast.
Presented in six, roughly ten-minute installments, Stingray Sam recounts the exploits of…well, Stingray Sam (McAbee). A reformed crook, Sam is content with his gig as a lounge singer on Mars, until adventure yet again sniffs him out. His old partner, the Quasar Kid (Crugie), moseys into his joint with a proposition that will completely wipe both of their checkered pasts clean. To do so, Sam and the Kid have to rescue a little girl (Willa Vy McAbee), the last on a male-dominated planet led by the genetically-designed, self-deluded Fredward (Joshua Taylor). With absolute freedom on the line, Sam takes to the stars, embarking on a journey fraught with such perils as sarcastic secretaries, tiny robot suits, and pregnant men.
Stingray Sam scales back on The American Astronaut‘s macabre overtones without sacrificing all things odd. Some Douglas Adams-style surreal humor is injected into an already silly story, which McAbee and his band/creative brain trust The Billy Nayer Show have based on old-school science fiction serials. The film puts a lot of thought into an essentially trivial and arbitrary mythos (outlined with the utmost seriousness by narrator David Hyde Pierce), but all these goofy details really add to the charm. It’s also understandably maddening, so if you’re driven bonkers by the deadpan humor and nonsense songs two episodes in, there’s little chance that you’ll be won over. But I had no problem going along with the quirky flow, which, lasting just an hour’s length, comes across as consistently fresh without overstaying its welcome.
As was the case with The American Astronaut, a great soundtrack is vital to Stingray Sam‘s persona. Each segment gets its own centerpiece tune, all of which are funny, distinct, and enhance the plot in their own ways. Highlights include Sam and the Quasar Kid running through a list of men birthed by other men, plus a nontraditional lullaby the guys sing to their pint-sized cargo. It’s all in good fun, but McAbee is never caught winking at the camera or making it seem like you shouldn’t be invested in what’s happening because the film isn’t 100 percent serious. McAbee, Crugie (yep, just Crugie), and the assorted supporting actors play their parts in earnest, not wholly over-the-top but not too relaxed, either.
Stingray Sam is niche to the core, wearing its independent roots on its sleeve. It’s messy, low-tech, and looks like it was cobbled together with whatever junk was in McAbee’s closet. But where less audacious pictures would become depressed by their lack of financial support, Stingray Sam is proud to be homebrewed, and its singularly strange taste is all the more savory for it.